Ian Fairlee (being lifted) and Matt Dengler (left), Jose Luaces (center), Shavey Brown (right) in a scene from Musicals Tonight!’s production of ‘The Boys From Syracuse.’ (Photo: Milliron Studios Photography)
By Bobby McGuire
Once upon various times, female roles on stage were played by men, the popular hits of the day came from musicals and Off-Off-Broadway didn’t take itself so seriously. Those bygone days are alive and well for the next two weeks in Musicals Tonight’s delightfully ragged mounting of the classic Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse presented with an all-male cast.
Based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, and set in ancient Greece, The Boys from Syracuse is the tale of separated twins both named Antipholus and their servants (also separated twins) both named Dromio. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse land in less-than-friendly Ephesus, where (unbeknownst to them) their brothers reside with their less-than-satisfied wives. Identities are mistaken. Hearts are broken. Mayhem ensues. An execution is averted. And the families are reunited.
Originally produced in 1938, the show’s Tin Pan Alley and jazz-infused score debuted the Rodgers and Hart songs “Falling in Love with Love,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “Sing for Your Supper,” — all of which would go on to achieve classic status in the American Songbook.
Presented with a shoestring budget characteristic of Musicals Tonight offerings, this all- (well mostly) male production of The Boys from Syracuse is reminiscent in style of San Francisco’s notorious acid-laced drag troupe The Cockettes and Charles Busch’s famed Theater in Limbo.
Hope Salvan’s costumes are a hodgepodge of anachronisms that include a pair of matching 1930s era suits for the Antipholuses, overalls and stocking caps for the Dromios, and a collection of stiletto heels fancy half-frocks and sundry schmattas for the female characters. The action is beautifully played out on set designer Joshua Warner’s playground of a post-modern collage that includes brightly-colored industrial steps, a massive cardboard clip art pointing finger, a quartet of cartoon ionic columns and an oversized Greek diner coffee cup.
The cast has a hoot with the production’s mixed salad of styles. With a wink and nod-worthy of an RKO musical star, Josh Walden seems born to play Antipholus of Syracuse. His character’s opener “Dear Old Syracuse” is a lesson in vaudeville style. As philandering Antipholus of Ephesus, Matt Dengler is suitably Zeppo Marx-like. Real-life twin brothers Ian and Matthew Fairlee display terrific clowning chops as the Dromios.
Similarly, the “ladies” in the company earn equally high marks (in even higher heels). In a turn that can best be described as “Ancient Greece by way of Great Neck,” Jonathan Hoover injects real pathos into vexed housewife Adriana. With enough zazz to put the Rockettes to shame, Sam Given hits all the right marks as the Head Courtesan. And Adam B. Shapiro makes a virtual meal out of Dromio’s perpetually disgruntled wife, Luce.
But the real star of the show is director Jonathan Cerullo. With the overly generous use of double takes, broad asides and even broader physical comedy (accentuated in Three Stooges form by bells, blocks and whistles), Cerullo breathlessly zips his cast of nearly 20 bodies around the minuscule Lion Theatre stage like it was the Winter Garden.
What’s most skillful about Cerullo’s hand is how the evening stays true to the original material even when it wades into some now-culturally insensitive waters. This was exemplified in the Act Two opener “Ladies of the Evening” where a policeman sings about rounding up prostitutes in the morning for some potential cop-hooker romance.
We let the burglars take their snatch
To the shop for pawning.
All that we ever aim to catch
Is the ladies of the evening in the morning.
All night they bring rich men to grief
Till they have no cash left.
Cops can’t afford the good roast beef
But we have the hash left.
Not exactly PC in today’s post-Weinstein climate. Instead of cutting the number (as the equally offensive “I’m An Indian Too” is cut from most productions of Annie Get Your Gun), Cerullo has his company hold up disclaimer placards that read: “This song was written in 1938.” A final card reading “Times Up” was flipped by a shrugging Madeline Hamlet (the only woman in the cast).
Sure there are some missteps in the production. The unnecessary pre-show staging and choreographed overture was a real head-scratcher, as was the bizarre use of face painting on some of the characters on stage. But when you’re having this much fun in the playground, why complain about a squeaky teeter totter?
The Boys From Syracuse
The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 25
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.